Raphael Noz: Between the Visible and the Invisible
published as a catalog essay for Provincetown Art Association
and Museum, 1999
I met Raphael my first winter in Provincetown, back in 1993.
That winter the heavens dropped more snow than I had seen in
my whole life, and in my chilly furnished sublet on Mechanic
Street, I survived the weather and the solitude on poetry and
wine and rich conversation with a few new friends, other washashores,
dislocated, searching. Raphael was among us.
I remember the amazing story of Raphael's arrival in P'Town.
On a cold, starry evening in the winter of 1992, he crested
the last hill in Truro, and drove down into the town. He parked
his car in the town lot at the wharf, and as he walked away,
he noticed the license plate of the car in front of him. It
Raphael is deeply drawn to such mysterious synchronicity.
In the work exhibited here, he is moving through that darkened
doorway between the visible and invisible. Indeed, the work
in this exhibition might be considered a kind of spiritual
practice, for he is exploring the unexplainable, the inexpressible,
the sacred context of our lives. Getting to this place has
Born in Los Angeles in 1964 to a Mexican father and an American
mother, later separated, Raphael grew up in the white world
of West LA. His father spoke little of his family or his Hispanic
heritage. Raphael lived with that mystery. He left the city
for college in Washington State, then traveled to Italy to
study in Florence. Later Raphael moved east to study at Rhode
Island School of Design and the Museum School in Boston. At
28 he came to Provincetown where, he says, he grew up.
later, a friend asked Raphael for a favor. Would he bring
heirloom up to Boston for him, a portrait of
the friend's deceased father? Raphael traveled to Boston to
deliver the portrait. Later he found out that in that same
period of time his own father had died. He went home to Los
Angeles for his father's funeral. There spent time with half-siblings
from his father's first marriage, whom he had never met…full
Hispanic siblings, with his own brown skin and eyes. "I
saw I was more like them than the family I had grown up with." It
was a catalyst for him to seek out his heritage. He decided
to go to Mexico. He would take with him the watches, found
with his father's things. The alarm on one of them kept going
off. He would give the watches away, to the street children,
and lay his father to rest. The prospect of the journey was
terrifying. He had the overwhelming feeling that this was a
death trip -- “I was sure I was going to die." Still,
he went to Mexico. And that pilgrimage, returning the father
to his home, "gave birth to me." In that transforming
experience, Raphael located his native, visual language.
Painting on metal, Raphael expands on the Mexican tradition
of ex votos, or prayer painting. Ex votos are story pictures,
which are created out of thanks for a special happening or
intervention, often incorporating text as a way of making the
message more explicit. Raphael transforms his experience and
personal memories into visual narratives, turning his own life
history into small universal testaments to the presence of
the unexplainable in our daily lives. Larger than any human
conception, in the midst of dislocation, loneliness, fear,
love, desire, family ties, there is the intangible, the inexplicable.
In the hidden lies the power.
paintings breathe the sensation of place and feeling. In
The Two Dollar
Bill, a brown hand appears in the corner,
reaching from the last pew of small, sparsely peopled sanctuary
at St. Peter's to drop a two-dollar bill in the collection
plate, while in the background, the space diminishes to the
altar mural. The mural depicts Jesus' calling of St. Peter.
We don't see the subject, the "I" of the painting,
only the brown hands and the text, written in a child's awkward
cursive, in the prayer missal he holds. It is a message from
his father: Sure, I'd love to visit Cape Cod. It's ok to let
me go. It's ok to have your own life.
The paintings carry the distressed look of relics, a kind
of defaced elegance. Like an old colonial capital, like the
Mexico City of the 30's and 40's remembered by the Mexican
poet Octavio Paz:
I loved everything about that city, even though it had an
air of fallen
greatness. Today we often sigh when we think
about the Mexico of
those years, but it already showed signs
of a beauty mistreated.
Something which had seen better days.
Poverty and greatness:
an old grandeur and a sense of melancholy.
achieve this effect, Raphael often leaves the pieces outside,
exposed to the dirt and settling dust of the city, to the humanness
of the city. "It is better," he says, "to stay
close to the dirtiness. Dirtiness and elegance co-exist. That's
Raphael sometimes shops for his subjects in the marketplace
of Mexican history. The newest pieces in this exhibition grow
out of contrasting images from the colonial period, when his
Spanish ancestors immigrated to Mexico, when European cruelty
and civility encountered indigenous Indian culture. Like traditional
ex-votos, these paintings carry a vocabulary of images, a conciliatory
iconography, deftly uniting opposites. It is that point of
encounter, the intersection of the sacred with the profane,
the refined with the primitive, the masculine with the feminine,
the conscious with the unconscious, all existing at the same
time that ignites Raphael's imagination.
Several works are shaped like vessels. These pieces are often
decorated with finely rendered figures and carefully crafted
attachments, a form which combines the peasant tradition of
hammered metal decoration and European style painting. Some
vessels carry a religious symbolism, like the ritual chalice
offered during mass. One piece presents a celebratory vessel,
with a womb-shaped frame, opening on a family portrait - the
child's christening. Campaign, shaped like a gushing heart,
depicts the Spanish soldiers riding to battle the Indians.
The Night Sea holds the image of a thoroughly modern buff guy
in a thong, headless, levitating over the green sea. Above,
the animate moon and stars, observing all, suggest a benevolent
The paintings in this exhibition tell us of the power of hidden
things. It is Raphael's obsession, to pursue the ultimately
futile work of trying to describe the invisible. In a way,
he says, he can only fail. Yet he persists, the hope of rebirth
in the doing.